One of the biggest stars of the 1930s, she was largely forgotten until Turner Classic Movies, bless their hearts, revived and restored her renown.
Katherine Edwina “Kay” Francis (née Gibbs, January 13, 1905 – August 26, 1968) was an American stage and film actress. After a brief period on Broadway in the late 1920s, she moved to film and achieved her greatest success between 1930 and 1936, when she was the number one female star at the Warner Brothers studio and the highest-paid American film actress. Some of her film-related material and personal papers are available to scholars and researchers in the Wesleyan University Cinema Archives.
From 1932 through 1936, Francis was the queen of the Warners lot, and increasingly, her films were developed as star vehicles. By the mid-thirties, Francis was one of the highest-paid actors, according to IMDb, to the tune of, by 1935, earning a yearly salary of $115,000 (compared to Bette Davis with $18,000) in the United States. From the years 1930 to 1937, Francis appeared on the covers of 38 film magazines, the most for any adult performer and second only to Shirley Temple, who appeared on 138 covers during that period.
Francis had married writer-director John Meehan in New York, but soon after her arrival in Hollywood, she consummated an affair with actor and producer Kenneth MacKenna, whom she married in January 1931. When MacKenna’s Hollywood career foundered, he found himself spending more time in New York, and they divorced in 1934.
Francis frequently played long-suffering heroines, in films such as I Found Stella Parish, Secrets of an Actress, and Comet Over Broadway, displaying to good advantage lavish wardrobes that, in some cases, were more memorable than the characters she played—a fact often emphasized by contemporary film reviewers. Francis’ clotheshorse reputation often led Warners’ producers to concentrate resources on lavish sets and costumes, designed to appeal to Depression-era female audiences and capitalize on her reputation as the epitome of chic, rather than on scripts.
Eventually, Francis herself became dissatisfied with these vehicles, and began openly to feud with Warners, even threatening a lawsuit against them for inferior treatment. This, in turn, led to her demotion to programmers, such as Women in the Wind (1939), and, in the same year, to the termination of her contract.
Francis married five times. Her diaries, preserved in an academic collection at Wesleyan University, paint a picture of a woman whose personal life was often in disarray. She regularly socialized with homosexual men, one of whom, Anderson Lawler, was reportedly paid $10,000 by Warner Bros. to accompany her to Europe in 1934.
In 1966, Francis was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy, but the cancer had spread and proved fatal. Having no living immediate family members, Francis left more than $1,000,000 to The Seeing Eye, which trains guide dogs for the blind. She died in 1968, aged 63, and her body was immediately cremated; her ashes were scattered.